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Veganism, a totally animal-free diet, is becoming more popular among people in the Gulf countries. Once practiced by a small percentage of those concerned about the treatment of animals, the environment, and health considerations, veganism is now becoming a global movement assisted by the Internet. Almaha Aldossari is a chef trying to make a name for herself in a Saudi market becoming more welcoming to women specialized in the culinary arts, but not yet to veganism. Known on social media as “The Bedouin Vegan,” she presents the vegan philosophy to her followers as both a global idea and part of Saudi identity. AGSIW spoke with Almaha about health, cooking, and veganism to shed light on this trend through the experience of a Saudi chef.
AGSIW: You define yourself as “The Bedouin Vegan.” What does that mean and what are you trying to address with this description?
Almaha: The reason why I chose this definition is because the current description of bedouin in the Arab context is highly connected with eating meat and dishes that contain meat. However, historically the nomad bedouins were poor and because they traveled most of the time looking for water and food, they were not able to eat meat all the time. Thus, I wanted to put “bedouin” and “vegan” together, which to most of us contradict each other and show that they actually do not. Moreover, to me, I come from a bedouin family; my father was a shepherd and traveled with his cattle all over the Arabian Peninsula, from Palestine to Iraq, and back to Saudi Arabia. When I talked with him about veganism, he told me that among the bedouins, if someone committed a crime the other members would torture him by tying him to a palm trunk and feeding him only meat for one week until he died. So, I believe that these two characters are part of my culture and who I am, and I thought I would bring them back together. I also wanted a catchy name to attract people’s attention to listen to what I have to say and “The Bedouin Vegan” is an oxymoron that has struck people.
AGSIW: How do you reach people with your new message of veganism?
Almaha: I first started to post my messages on health and cooking on Snapchat where I first defined myself as “The Bedouin Vegan.” I chose Snapchat because I studied in the UK and Twitter there is not a means of communication as much as it is in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf countries. So, Snapchat was the best social media platform for me. It is very easy and accessible. Back then my target was my friends and family friends, I never imagined that my messages on social media would go viral. Now I have followers from Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait, the UAE, and from all over and after I graduated I came back to Saudi Arabia and now I am using Twitter and Instagram as well.
AGSIW: How did you become a professional chef and where did you study?
Almaha: I was a corporate banker and I always wanted to own a restaurant. I had never thought of being at the back of the house. I always thought of myself at the front of the house managing the place. Cooking had always been a stress relief exercise for me, and I really loved doing it. So I decided to make living out of it. So, I quit my job at the bank and I moved to London to study culinary arts at Le Cordon Blue London. I pursued a grand diploma in pastry and cuisine. After I finished these two courses, I had a diploma in culinary management, or what is known as DCM, in which I learned about health and hazards in kitchens. Then I got master’s in hospitality and tourism, also in London. Then I came back to Saudi Arabia and I am currently a chef.
AGSIW: How did you become vegan?
Almaha: During my years of study, I always was thinking about the best places to import beef and fish from. I was not thinking about veganism at all. I remember being in a class and the chef was teaching us about the French delight foie gras, which is duck or goose liver that has been forced to eat until fat is built up on its liver. They were teaching us that treating ducks in this way is ethical and is not considered animal abuse. I remember one of the chefs saying sarcastically: “If they want us to stop eating foie gras then let’s stop eating meat!” The whole class laughed. I thought that stopping eating meat is funny because it is a radical and extreme decision.
The first time I was introduced to veganism was through my sister who suffered from arthritis. Each time she wanted to get pregnant she had to stop her medication and three years of her life would be robbed from her. She could barely move, and she could not even open a bottle of water. One time she met a guy from the United States who also suffered from the same disease and cured himself by going on a plant-based diet. He did not use any medication and solely thrived and survived on his food. He also told her that we are the only creature that drinks the milk of another mammal. This information made me think a lot about my life and I started to research veganism and watch many documentaries about it and the effect of killing animals on agriculture and climate change to understand this diet. I wanted to find a flaw in this diet but the more I searched the more I was convinced by it.
At that time, I was claiming that I was environmentally conscious, I recycled, I did not use plastic as much, I minimized my time in the shower, I did not open the faucet to the max, etc. In one documentary they showed a guy killing a duck to eat it and this was the first time I watched an animal being killed. It was such a stressful moment. I thought that if I cannot kill an animal, how could I let someone do it for me? While I was watching, I was eating a burger, and after I finished I washed my plate minimizing the water coming out of the faucet, and at that moment I realized how hypocritical I was. Then one thing led to another and the more I think, the more I research, the more I am convinced that this is the correct lifestyle.
AGSIW: What obstacles did you face in order to be a chef in Saudi Arabia?
Almaha: Two years ago, a lady chef had to work in a separate kitchen because of the roles and regulations of gender segregation. Also, the regulations required me to own a restaurant if I wanted to work in a one as a chef. When I first came back to Saudi Arabia it was not easy to have my own restaurant without having cooking experience. I applied to several hotels and all of them told me that I could not work in their main kitchen with the rest of the male chefs. I got disappointed and I went back to London to get a master’s degree in hospitality and tourism. By the time I graduated, the gender segregation laws in Saudi had changed and I was hired immediately. In the hotel that I am working in there have been 16 female chefs.
AGSIW: Being a chef was not a common profession in Saudi Arabia. With the increased number of Saudi chefs, how do you evaluate the social acceptance of the professional cook in Saudi Arabia now?
Almaha: I believe Saudi society is divided into two categories: The first is those who appreciate this profession as a type of art, the other is those who see the service side of it. The latter look down upon the chef profession. I think more people are joining the first category in Saudi Arabia. When I served in the hotel buffet during the month of Ramadan, the visitors always came to say encouraging words and express their proudness that a Saudi woman is working as a chef. The social support is amazing.
AGSIW: You are exposed to what people eat through your work in the hotel. Do you think that veganism is now more popular in Saudi Arabia? Do you have clients who order vegan food?
Almaha: Yes, many customers do. The vegan population is growing by the minute in Saudi Arabia. People now are more aware of it especially the millennial generation. They are exposed to all kinds of information as they have media right in the palm of their hands.
AGSIW: And how do you see the reflection of this global movement on the Saudi market? Are there restaurants and supermarkets specialized in vegan food in Saudi Arabia?
Almaha: A year ago I used to go to the health stores in Saudi Arabia and I could barely find one or two vegan options. Now I can find startups that make local vegan cheese and there are several vegan stores that sell everything from vegan proteins to vegan chips. So, the demand is there, slowly but surely. It is a lifestyle that people are accepting, and it is going to take over. People are more aware of the environment and more aware of their health. Everything about a vegan lifestyle is beneficial, and I do not think it is going to fade. And I will keep pushing to the moment that I can cook vegan food and only vegan food.
is an MPhil/PhD student in the anthropology department at University College London and a non-resident fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.
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